Field Notes
How to Start a d.school

People often ask us how to start a d.school. We love hosting universities, governments, companies, and other organizations from around the world and hearing their plans to create a program or space inspired by the d.school.

But there is no one-size-fits-all recipe; it's really up to you. Every context and culture has its own quirks. What we can share is how we found our way. This is a guide to key ingredients of the d.school that were folded into the batter early on and still persist today.

For more on some of those ingredients check out our collection of founding principles resources

QUESTIONS TO ASK

10 key ingredients for a tasty d.school

If you're trying to build a d.school-like entity, think of these as pantry essentials. They can work in many different combinations to make something uniquely suited to feed the creative needs of your students, and fit within the context of your institution. Plus, make sure you add some local ingredients not found anywhere else! The most successful d.school-like entities around the world have a distinct flavor profile that we never could have predicted.

As you read this, ask yourself the following questions.

What is your unique take on design?

The founders of a creative community often set the tone in how they model creative behavior. How will you establish a unique point of view about what (your version of) design looks like, feels like, and works like?

How will you carve out room to maneuver?

People will want you to have all the answers even before you launch. How will you preserve room for experimentation (especially in the early days)?

Who is with you on this adventure?

Starting something new is like going on a foggy quest. How will you include people who are committed to your survival and will contribute in unexpected ways when you face unknown challenges?

Now, here's our best advice.

1 Be radically student-centered

2 Embrace clashing perspectives

3 Show unfinished work

4 Focus on the how, not the what

5 Seek out fresh minds

6 Allow people to opt in

7 Build in room for change

8 Remember learning is a designed activity

9 Find a balance between chaos and control

10 Pay attention to team dynamics

 

Note: The photos below are circa 2004-2009. Back then, the d.school was made up mainly of a small cohort of Stanford professors, an equally small group of Bay Area design practitioners, and teaching fellows who were hired each year to keep injecting fresh perspectives. The d.school has increased both in scale and all manner of diversity since, but this team embodied many core values that persist in our methodology and pedagogy today.

Radically student centered

NUMBER ONE

Be radically student-centered

From day one, student-centeredness was one of the most important aspect of the d.school. The early classes set the tone that every student could show up as an individual in the community. At the beginning of the first day of the first class, Director of Community Charlotte Burgess-Auburn handed each student a card to fill out that asked: "Why are you here?"

Students were initially struck by how integral they were to the classroom experience. After every session came a debrief: students sat with the teaching team to discuss what they liked, disliked, and how the class could improve. The teaching team would absorb the feedback, and tailor the next class meeting accordingly.

Quite a few students weren't used to being immediately critical, and some were taken by surprise at how much their perspectives mattered. They expected to feel a distance from the faculty – to hold them in a place of honor without accessibility. In fact, they found the d.school faculty both present and vulnerable. 

Students gathered for "Adventures in Design Thinking," one of the earliest classes at the d.school.

Students gathered for "Adventures in Design Thinking," one of the earliest classes at the d.school.

George Kembel and Bernie Roth engage students in an early d.school class prototype. 

George Kembel and Bernie Roth engage students in an early d.school class prototype. 

Embrace Clashing Perspectives

NUMBER TWO

Embrace clashing perspectives

Encountering different perspectives is one key to unlocking students’ creativity. An interdisciplinary approach has always been a cornerstone of the d.school. The earliest classes brought together students and faculty from many disciplines across Stanford, creating a community that challenged, advanced, and learned from each other.

While learning from faculty who didn't always see things the same way, students realized that design projects don't have obvious or single right answers, and that the challenge they had to rise to was to navigate the ambiguous space between contrasting expert advice.

I became fascinated by the variety of disciplinary cultures, and how students are acculturated without realizing it. I’m often quite moved when, to this day, I hear things like, ‘I’ve realized I’ve been trained to think like a medical student.’ Or, ‘I am stuck in the way lawyers think about problem-solving.
— Sarah Stein Greenberg

Students often don’t realize their biases until they witness how other students’ working styles contrast with their own.

In fact, many d.school methods are sparked by weaving together relevant disciplinary traditions from many fields. These methods become the common vocabulary that allows people from very different backgrounds to collaborate.

An early d.school teaching team: Michael Barry, Tina Seelig, Bernie Roth, Nicole Kahn, Terry Winograd

An early d.school teaching team: Michael Barry, Tina Seelig, Bernie Roth, Nicole Kahn, Terry Winograd

Show Unfinished Work

NUMBER THREE

Show unfinished work

In the early days in particular, d.school staff were prototyping everything. How the class schedule worked. Various ways to visualize the calendar. Different approaches to class projects.

The original space also had almost no walls. The few walls it did have were made of unfinished 2x4s and skinned with see-through panels, which became work surfaces. So everything was visible.

This hyper-visibility could be frustrating at times, but it was influential in the early development of the d.school and its students: it helped expose work and allowed ideas to flow freely. From the staff’s calendars and diagrams to the students' prototypes and sketches, no one's work could hide.

Later on, this ethos led to a habit of keeping work-in-progress on display.

Students sharing project work in Birch Modular, the d.school's first home. 

Students sharing project work in Birch Modular, the d.school's first home. 

Focus on the How, Not the What

NUMBER FOUR

Focus on the how, not the what

At the d.school, emphasis is placed on process over content: how students are working, not just what they’re producing. In many ways, the focus of the d.school is the behaviors of its students.

“What are we actually teaching? Much of it is how to work with other people, specifically those who have effective but different models of working than you do. The only way to learn it is to do it.” - Scott Doorley

Placing design strategies in the foreground is key to offering classes that transcend disciplines because design becomes the common vocabulary for student teams. By rooting classes in a common methodology rather than a specific content area, the d.school has become an intersection for creative work where anyone can find a home.

Seek Out Fresh Minds

NUMBER FIVE

Seek out fresh minds

Though there was a strong point of view around how to work, from the start there was plenty of autonomy and trust placed in individual capability.

For example, d.school fellows fresh out of school were asked to lead big projects and classes. Seasoned faculty taught alongside these former students as equals. While it could be a stretch for the young teachers, they also brought something unique to the table: a strong sense of empathy for the students. They had just been students themselves, after all. And through the intensity of the tasks these fellows were charged with, they soon learned to trust their own capability.   

This is a particular method at the d.school, a version of legendary psychologist Albert Bandura's concept of ‘guided mastery.’ By entrusting individuals with increasingly complex tasks, then guiding them through a rehearsal of potential actions they might take, they begin to develop self-efficacy.

The first d.school fellows: Colter Leys, Nicole Kahn, Adam French, James Monsees, Meg Lee, Susie Hosking

The first d.school fellows: Colter Leys, Nicole Kahn, Adam French, James Monsees, Meg Lee, Susie Hosking

d.school fellows class of 2008-2009 Erica Estrada, Joel Sadler, Scott Witthoft, Corey Ford

d.school fellows class of 2008-2009 Erica Estrada, Joel Sadler, Scott Witthoft, Corey Ford

Traditional forms of education haven’t done a particularly good job at helping students develop creative confidence. In fact, you could argue that many of them have done the opposite.

In a sense, that’s what the d.school is about: helping people find their own agency and figure out that the challenge in front of them is one they can handle.

 

Allow People to Opt In

NUMBER SIX

Allow people to opt in

It’s easy to look at the d.school today and forget how small it once was. But it was started by just a handful of people—like-minded enthusiasts who ran a few classes to get going.

Most importantly, the early members all joined on their own accord. Rather than recruiting based on speciality or expertise, the core team found people who were truly excited about the idea—then, they demonstrated what was possible.

Another key ingredient that made the early classes successful was that teachers taught based on their interests, not necessarily their professional expertise. For instance, the first official class featured a computer science legend, Terry Winograd, teaching storytelling. To many students, it was their favorite class section. To Terry, it was interesting because he wanted to tackle a topic unfamiliar to him. Similarly, the wildly popular Extreme Affordability class was taught by Jim Patell--a business professor who had taught almost every core subject at the GSB. Now he was at the d.school, teaching a course on designing for the developing world based on his personal passion for the topic.

The d.school's early cohort (clockwise from left): David Kelley, Bernie Roth, Jim Patell, Tina Seelig, Bob Sutton, Alex Kazaks, George Kembel, Dave Beach, Perry Klebahn, Julian Gorodsky, Charlotte Burgess-Auburn

The d.school's early cohort (clockwise from left): David Kelley, Bernie Roth, Jim Patell, Tina Seelig, Bob Sutton, Alex Kazaks, George Kembel, Dave Beach, Perry Klebahn, Julian Gorodsky, Charlotte Burgess-Auburn

We’ve always had this idea that the people who come to the d.school are wayward thinkers and doers—meaning their life path isn’t a straight line. That’s true about the students, the faculty, the fellows, and nearly everyone else who calls the d.school home at some point.

Build in Room for Change

NUMBER SEVEN

Build in room for change

Space can shape behavior. When it comes to inspiring creativity, a student’s relationship to their physical environment is paramount. At the d.school, people are encouraged to mess around with space and use it as tool to accelerate their work.

When you walk into the d.school, you’ll see that almost every piece of furniture (and many walls) is on wheels. For physical space to promote creativity, rather than limit it, the space must be malleable. It’s there to accommodate the work, not the other way around.

Whiteboard sliders and tables on casters allow students to set up impromptu workspaces.

Whiteboard sliders and tables on casters allow students to set up impromptu workspaces.

In addition, evolving the overall setting keeps things advancing quickly. Due to the allocation of spaces on campus, the d.school changed buildings four times during its first five years.

This was challenging in many ways. Moving is painful, after all. By the time the team finished designing a new space—and became comfortable with it—it was time to move again.  But it was critical in forming the d.school ethos we know today. Despite the trials and tribulations, the team was given an opportunity to test and experiment with space at full scale, with actual students and faculty.

Jim Patell, Rick Ellinger, Charlie Ellinger and George Kembel build out the first d.school space with 2x4's 

Jim Patell, Rick Ellinger, Charlie Ellinger and George Kembel build out the first d.school space with 2x4's 

Learning is a Design Activity

NUMBER EIGHT

Remember learning is a designed activity

A focus on learning has been as defining a factor as any in shaping the d.school. In order to teach innovation, we had to innovate on our own teaching. That included altering the space year by year as a way to develop some best practices for student support. It included framing design challenges for the students to which the faculty didn't know answers. It included teaching less and allowing students to struggle more. And it included creating an organization that prizes learning as much as output. We shorthand this by reminding ourselves, "the innovator comes before the innovation."

As a result, learning experiences at the d.school are highly designed. Teaching teams intently craft a syllabus or a project brief, obsess over a warm-up activity, or create entirely new synthesis tools even when they've taught the course many times before.

Instructors even design each class session down to the minute, often using a spreadsheet to record the times and activities in a format that’s become known as a “tic toc.”

It's demanding and time consuming work. But the payoff comes when students report back that the impact of their learning experience at the d.school has been exceptional in shaping their trajectory and giving them skills and confidence to practice their creative abilities once the course is over.

An early team at the d.school involved in some much needed post-class stress relief.

An early team at the d.school involved in some much needed post-class stress relief.

Find a balance between chaos and control

NUMBER NINE

Find a balance between chaos and control

David Kelley discussing the evolution of design and design thinking.

David Kelley discussing the evolution of design and design thinking.

David Kelley often points to intentionality as the key trait of a good designer. Similarly, the d.school itself has always thrived as a result of highly intentional efforts.

At first glance, walking into the d.school can feel as though you’re entering a melee of overlapping activities—and on some days, the environment reaches a level of vibrant chaos that can be overwhelming. But on a closer look, you’ll see that intent drives many details, both on a physical level, and in how programs or classes are designed and coexist. 

Sometimes that intention results in tradeoffs: we embrace a little mess, rather than stifle students by sending a message that the space is too precious to make a mistake in. It can be hard to navigate for first-time visitors... because the space is constantly changing.

But these choices are not accidents: they are the result of experimentation based on observable student behavior, and honoring the fundamentals of the creative process. We hope that they set the conditions necessary for students to strive for absurd levels of excellence, while also freely trying, failing, and iterating.

Speaking of which...

Pay attention to team dynamics

NUMBER TEN

Pay attention to team dynamics

Bringing students together from different parts of the university on teams meant that in addition to using design to tackle complex, open-ended problems in an unfamiliar context, they simultaneously had to learn how to collaborate across disciplines and perspectives.

Not surprisingly, this exact same description could be applied to early faculty, staff, and fellows at the d.school.

The team that built the d.school made choices that were often quite contrary to regular academic culture. And these choices weren’t without friction. Even the idea of having extremely senior faculty and design practitioners on the same teaching team was radical. It wasn’t always easy. The beginning of a movement can be difficult because new ideas are being articulated at the same time the organization is being built. 

This was a group of trailblazers, each with their individual ideals, opinions, and convictions—and while each person’s perspective was valid, they weren't always aligned. In the beginning, there were substantive arguments, interpersonal struggles, and plenty of false starts.

But even the friction catalyzed some incredible new classes and programs. When there were bumps in the road, it was almost always because the founding team was fighting for something they believed in. And their persistence and commitment got us to where we are today.

We wouldn't have it any other way.